Niagara Falls City Planner Thomas DeSantis is known as a zealous bureaucrat who does his level best to make sure property owners in this city comply with every municipal law that comes within his purview.
From building height restrictions to making sure the law is followed as to the number of shrubs planted on a property, he is known as strict, by the book, and prepared to close a business down, rescind site plans, and seek condemnation of properties when property owners do not follow the rules and regulations of the city, many of which he wrote himself over the 20 years he has been city planner.
When it comes to his own house, however, Mr. DeSantis may have a different standard.
The Niagara Falls Reporter learned that Mr. DeSantis, in January 2011, had more than $36,000 in repairs, including extensive electrical and plumbing work, made to his home at 8502 Pershing Ave. in the LaSalle area of Niagara Falls, without getting any of the legally required building, electrical and plumbing permits.
The Reporter learned he had purchased materials from Kinetic Kitchen & Bath at 1655 Fashion Outlet Boulevard in Niagara Falls.
The former president of Kinetic, Chris Connolly, confirmed that Mr. DeSantis purchased materials to install a kitchen and bath at his home.
“I knew at the time who he was and I knew his position with the city,” Mr. Connolly said. “His home had been built in the 1930s and it looked like a beautiful home, but nothing had been done to the kitchen. He and his wife went with a fairly high-end finish. They did not buy cheap. The work, as I recall, was done by a subcontractor.”
The Reporter contacted Code Enforcement Acting Director Dennis Virtuoso. Mr. Virtuoso said he knew nothing about any work done at Mr. DeSantis’ home and confirmed no permits had been filed for a kitchen, bathroom, plumbing or electrical work in 2011 by Mr. DeSantis or anyone on his behalf for his house at 8502 Pershing.
Mr. Virtuoso said the last permits filed for Mr. DeSantis’ home was on June 31, 2004, to erect a Florida room, and before that, on Oct. 16, 2003, when he installed a roof.
While exterior repairs, evident to inspectors and neighbors, require permits, do interior repairs such as putting in a new kitchen, also require a permit?
“It depends on what they do,” Mr. Virtuoso said. “A licensed electrician is required for any electrical work. For plumbing, unless the homeowner does it himself, a licensed master plumber must do the plumbing. But, even if the homeowner does his own plumbing, he still needs a permit. We have to inspect it to make sure it is done to code.”
What if a person does not file a permit?
“We send them a letter that we received a complaint and no permits were applied for. Then we go and inspect the work,” said Mr. Virtuoso. “Also, once a permit is taken, the city assessor sends someone out to determine what the value of the improvement was, and the house is then reassessed. That is why a lot of people try to bypass the building permit so that the assessor won’t get in there. If the assessor goes in and sees, for example, a new kitchen and bath, then he would reassess it accordingly.”
Mr. DeSantis, when contacted by phone and asked specific details, admitted contractors had installed a brand-new kitchen and bath to his home, and confirmed it was at a cost of about $36,000 and that plumbing and electrical work had been done.
Was a permit taken?
“I don’t know if there was a permit,” said Mr. DeSantis. “As far as I’m concerned, the work (the contractor) did was inclusive. My perspective is the contract included the permits.”
Do you know if a permit was actually taken?
Were you aware that a permit was required?
Did you ever ask to see the permit?
“I can’t recall. ... I contracted with a company who contracted with a (subcontractor who did the work). The implication to me was that (permits were) all taken care of. At no point was it discussed that I had to get the permits. That is my side of the story.”
Did you ever check to see if the contractor filed permits?
“That’s irrelevant. ... I am assuming they are professional and they are doing it legally.”
But isn’t it the homeowner’s responsibility to file for permits?
Then it was an oversight?
“Was it an oversight? Maybe you can characterize it that way. I don’t have anything else to say. To me this is a very simple thing.”
Now, of course, it makes good fodder, if the city planner does renovations on his private residence without a permit, while requiring everyone else to follow the law by the book, but is it really much ado about nothing? After all, the city of Niagara Falls charges only $30 for the first $1,000 of work done, and $15 per $1,000 after that. If Mr. DeSantis had paid the proper permit fees, his total permit costs would have been under $500.
Still, there are some questions.
Was it an innocent oversight?
Or perhaps more delicately: Being a public figure, did he not want the public to know he spent $36,000 on his kitchen and bath, which is more than half his annual $57,000 income at City Hall?
Was there even a remote possibility that he did not want the city assessor to know how much in improvements were made to his home?
And, most importantly, was it true, as he said, that the contract reads that it was the contractor’s responsibility to get permits?
The Reporter determined to investigate these questions and obtained a copy of the contract.
Signed by Thomas and Kathy DeSantis, the contract, dated Dec. 22, 2010, after listing the scope of repairs, which included extensive rewiring and plumbing, along with carpentry and cabinet installation, reads, “If permits are required, they are the sole responsibility of Kinetic or the Customer. The cost will then be revisited and adjusted for inspections, permits, scheduling, delays, etc.”
Studying the contract and comparing it with the final installation “customer sign off sheet,” dated Feb. 1, 2011, it appears the cost for permits was never “revisited and adjusted,” leading one to believe that Mr. DeSantis was never charged for permits. If he had read the contact carefully, by the time he and his wife signed off that the work was done satisfactorily, he certainly would have known permits never were filed.
Associated paperwork connected with the contract shows there was, as Mr. Connolly suggested, an elegant, if not stunning design plan, with a sophisticated use of space, color and finish, including granite countertops and state-of-the-art appliances. It was designed by Jill J. Westcott, the well- known interior designer for Kinetic Kitchen & Bath.
When contacted by the Reporter, Ms. Westcott disagreed with Mr. DeSantis’ contention that the contractor was responsible for permits.
“At that time, we discussed verbally that it was his responsibility to get the permits required,” said Ms. Westcott. “Mr. DeSantis, at that time, requested that the contractors park on 85th Street (side street) rather than Pershing, due to visibility. He made mention of the kitchen remodel causing his home to be reassessed, and he did not want that to happen.
“The (cost of the) permits were never added in by Kinetic Kitchen & Bath. It remained the responsibility of the homeowner. Therefore, it was always left to the homeowner’s responsibility.
“Lastly, I included a sheet that we have the homeowners sign off on when the work was complete. This again states ‘not responsibility of Kinetic providing the permits.’ On all jobs, we require the homeowners to purchase the permits.”
The Reporter contacted several others involved in the work. They confirmed that it was an “open secret” that Mr. DeSantis did not want permits taken on his home.
Anne Daggett, marketing manager of Buffalo Cabinetry on Military Road in Niagara Falls, was formerly head of marketing for Kinetic. Part of her duties was to make sure work done by subcontractors for products Kinetic sold was done in an efficient fashion
She said when she drove by Mr. DeSantis’ residence on Pershing Avenue, she noted, “workers were coming to his house in their private vehicles or in the (subcontractor’s) company trucks that were not marked with the company name on it.”
Did you know Mr. DeSantis was doing this job without permits?
“Yes. We all knew. I remember thinking, ‘What an enormous set of balls he has. He’s a city planner and he’s not getting a permit,’” Ms. Daggett said.
Workers involved in the project said the same thing.
When asked about comments made by Ms. Westcott, Ms. Daggett and others, that it was clearly understood that no permits were to be taken, because the assessor might find out, Mr. DeSantis said, “That’s a full-out lie. ... I did instruct them to park on the side street, because that’s the easiest way to get into the house, and not for any other reason.”
Did you really believe permits were filed back in 2011?
“As I said, it was my understanding that they were taking care of everything. ... If somebody is telling you different, then they are making things up,” said Mr. DeSantis.
According to pubic records, 8502 Pershing Ave. has an assessed value of $81,500, based on a 93 percent assessment. It has three bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, 1,532 square feet, and was built in 1936. It was purchased by Mr. DeSantis and his wife, Kathy, on Feb. 1, 1988 for $61,500.
The Reporter again contacted Mr. Virtuoso.
Suppose it was Mayor Paul Dyster that had done work without a permit, would you still look at enforcement?
“I would enforce it, even if it was my own mother,” Mr. Virtuoso said, “You have to enforce the law. Nobody is above the law. I stressed that all the time in my department: If you are going to have something done, get a permit.”
Did you scold Mr. DeSantis?
“I did. I said, ‘Tom, why didn’t you come in and tell us what you were doing?’”
Mr. DeSantis’ offices are 30 feet from the Code Enforcement offices on the third floor of City Hall. Mr. DeSantis also has a courtesy office inside the Code Enforcement offices.
Mr. Virtuoso sought to give Mr. DeSantis the benefit of the doubt.
“As soon as Tom found out about it (from the Reporter), he called and came down to the office ... and said, ‘I will do whatever I have to do.’ “This is not the first time it has happened where people were confused. I make all my guys get permits. They know better than that.”
Should Tom have known better?
“From what Tom is telling me, he thought it was taken care of,” said Mr. Virtuoso, “I don’t know. By Monday, he will come in and file permits and then we will go out and inspect and see if everything is OK. If it is not, then he will have to fix it. He has to pay double the permit fee now, and the assessor is going to go out, once the permit is filed, and reassess his house.”
The New York State Public Servant law (195.00 of the penal law) states that a public servant is guilty of official misconduct when “He commits an act related to his office. ... He knowingly refrains from performing a duty which is imposed upon him by law or is clearly inherent in the nature of his office ... with an intent to obtain a benefit.”
It is a class A misdemeanor and carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
If Mr. DeSantis were a foe of Mayor Dyster, one would certainly expect he would leave City Hall in handcuffs, or that Mayor Dyster would use this breach as an excuse to fire him. Mr. DeSantis is a close friend of the mayor and one of his top advisers.
As it stands, he will be allowed to pay a double permit fee, costing him a few hundred dollars. In fact, the small penalty makes it an inducement for others not to get permits. After all, if you do renovations, and nobody finds out, you get a win-win: You beat the assessor and save permit fees. In fact, if you are not found out, the gain is enormous, especially because reassessment is triggered by filing for a permit.
And if Code Enforcement happens to find out, it is no big deal. You pay a double permit fee, a few hundred dollars more. You’re not really worse off than had you filed the permit. The value of winning is so great when compared to the small penalty of doubling the permit fees that common sense would incline many to take the gamble. Indeed, had Mr. DeSantis’ home improvements not been uncovered by the Reporter, he would have likely saved thousands in taxes over the course of years.